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The quality of Mersey is not strained

Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Liverpool Royal Court Theatre

Welcome to the traditional seasonal homecoming. And what a way to come back home!

Though their early days were highlighted by some notorious live dates on their native Merseyside and the release of ‘Relax was marked by a short series of PAs, Frankie Goes To Hollywood — despite their massive success — remained a totally unknown live quantity for most of last year.

Cutting it in Trevor Horns studio and then selling their wares with engaging Scouse bravado and the assistance of the ZTT marketing machine was one thing: cutting it onstage in front of a live audience was going to be another matter.

But FGTH not only put on a far more proficient performance than most cynics would have thought possible, they also played with a power and panache that bore the hallmarks of a potentially great rock band.

It might have been Liverpool and it might have been just a few days before Christmas, but there was a distinct lack of the slack smugness and cosy camaraderie that characterised most of the major festive spectaculars in London. Stripping their sound down to its most basic ingredients, and confining any trace of Paul Morleys astute verbal trickery to the words and images that adorned the hexagonal slide screen that hung behind them onstage, FGTH meant business.

They played the three singles, most of the LP and two of their three classy covers — sensibly omitting the weakest, ‘San Jose — and kept everything crisp and economic without sacrificing any of their now characteristic raunch. There was no big stars entrance for Holly Johnson and a welcome lack of any showbizzy sense of The Spectacular. It was all remarkably straightforward and free of the half-expected ceremony.

Rather than try to recreate Horns wall of sound onstage, the fistful of Frankies — augmented by second guitarist Ged OToole and keyboard player Peter Oxendale — compensate with a barrage of full-stun rock guitar and bold slabs of synth sound. It is a musical strategy that is particularly impressive on the faster songs, the slower material veering more towards meandering progressive pomp-rock.

The songs are largely kept short and sweet — the seven rather than 12 inch versions — while the choreography is loose and teasingly suggestive; the vaguely incongruous spectacle of hundreds of teenage girls screaming uncontrollably as two openly gay men wiggle their bums up on stage is not one that is easily forgotten.

But the music aside, the most enduring facets of FGTH live are their wonderfully engaging sense of camp, their witty and waggish scally sarcasm and the sheer directness of their act. Holly Johnson — smart almost to the point of serenity in black dinner suit and white sash — previews each song with a snappy one-liner that contributes to a far more genuine audience rapport than that produced by the casual back-slapping favoured by the majority of todays pop preeners.

We get ‘Relax, naturally: “Did you all come? I did… twice!“ We get some cheeky ‘Krisco Kisses: “Most of you wont know what this one is about!“ And we get a staggering, blistering ‘Born To Run: “This one is an American anthem. They loved it over there… dickheads!

The “dress rehearsal” dates the band did in America have honed their attack impressively and undoubtedly left their mark on the bands ideas of presentation, the phrase “nice one” — apparently picked up by Holly on the Stateside jaunt — becoming a catch phrase for the show.

The night ends as only a night in Liverpool could with a truly anthemic ‘Ferry Across The Mersey, performed with the group stripped to the waist and smothered in flurries of fake snow, a fitting finale to what was a quite devastating return home.

But what of the future? Although no-one realistically expects them to repeat the feats of last year with the same impact and gusto, FGTH will inevitably face something of a backlash in 1985. On the strength of this Royal Court coup, they certainly have the musical credentials to weather the storm.

Nice one.

Adrian Thrills